Trump's Evolving Relationship With Saudi Arabia

Sep 18, 2019
Originally published on September 18, 2019 4:04 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Saudi Arabia earlier today. He's there to meet with officials about the recent attacks on the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco. Saudi officials say those attacks were unquestionably sponsored by Iran. The U.S. has the same view. Iran denies involvement.

The way the U.S. responds will be guided at least in part by President Trump's complex relationship with Saudi Arabia and its leaders. NPR's Jackie Northam has followed that relationship for years, and she is here in the studio to walk us through how it's evolved. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Begin with Trump before he was president. Today he seems really committed to standing by the Saudis. But that wasn't always the case, right?

NORTHAM: No, certainly not. For years he spent a lot of time complaining about the Saudis, basically that they weren't paying their way. The U.S. was protecting the kingdom at all times and that the Saudis were only paying a fraction of what they should have been paying. Now it actually went to - at some point back in 1987, he took out full-page ads in several major newspapers around the U.S. just laying out these complaints, saying that it was costing us too much money and that they need to start carrying their own baggage. And he went - even went on TV making this same complaint.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Japan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, these very, very wealthy countries that we're projecting should pay for their own defense. They should pay us for the defense, or they should defend themselves.

SHAPIRO: And then that started to shift as he was running for president in 2015, 2016, right?

NORTHAM: Yeah, certainly his tone became friendlier towards Saudi Arabia.

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TRUMP: Saudi Arabia - and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.

NORTHAM: And he keeps coming back throughout his whole history since then about money. He talks about billions and trillions, and it always comes back with money with the Saudis.

SHAPIRO: The investment and the money that the Saudis have invested not just in the United States, but in his own companies.

NORTHAM: Exactly, yeah. No, exactly right.

SHAPIRO: So once President Trump takes office, moves into the White House, what is his rhetoric about Saudi Arabia at that point?

NORTHAM: Well, then it does turn a little bit more for sure. And it really does help that his first trip out as president was to Saudi Arabia.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The president was greeted by King Salman of Saudi Arabia upon his arrival today in Riyadh. The purpose of the visit is to strengthen the alliance between the two countries.

NORTHAM: And this was organized by his son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, who actually has formed a very strong bond with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman. Anyway, the Trump and all his administration - all his key figures in that end up in Saudi Arabia. And they are given the red-carpet treatment.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Not only did the king come greet him, but he also presented a pretty heavy gold medal around his head. And as you see, the president walking down there as this ceremony takes place.

NORTHAM: It helped cement this relationship, and it became a very - it has become a very strong relationship between President Trump and the Saudis.

SHAPIRO: And as we said, money has also helped cement that relationship. Talk about the financial entanglements between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

NORTHAM: Where you really saw this was during a visit by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to the Oval Office to meet President Trump. And this is going back about a year and a half.

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TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody. It's a great honor to have the crown prince with us. Saudi Arabia's...

NORTHAM: And at that meeting, you know, the crown prince is sitting there in all his regalia and everything. And President Trump pulls out these posters which have pictures of tanks on them and planes on them and ships on them. And then there's the prices next to - millions billions of dollars, how much Saudi is buying off the U.S.

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TRUMP: Six-hundred-and-forty-five million dollars, $6 billion - that's for frigates. Eight-hundred-and-eighty-nine million, $63 million. And that's for various artillery.

NORTHAM: The thing is, you know, a lot of analysts thought that these numbers A, were inflated, but also that many of these contracts had been signed under President Obama and not - were not new contracts at all.

SHAPIRO: The biggest test of this relationship seemed to be the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. Tell us about how that affected the relationship.

NORTHAM: Right, and he was a Saudi journalist. And he was a dissident here - in self-exile here in the U.S. When it became clear that Jamal Khashoggi had been killed and this story unwound on that, U.S. intelligence assessed that the crown prince did have some role in his killing. Now whether he ordered or not is not sure but that he did have a role. You know, there was international outrage at the time and condemnation and that, except from President Trump.

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TRUMP: The CIA has looked at it. They've studied it a lot. They have nothing definitive. And the fact is maybe he did. Maybe he didn't.

NORTHAM: You know, President Trump made it clear that there are - you know, Saudi weapons deals are worth a lot of money.

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TRUMP: They spend $400 to $450 billion over a period of time...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: So...

TRUMP: ...All money, all jobs, buying equipment.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: ...That's the price. As long as they keep buying...

TRUMP: No, no.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: ...I'll overlook some of this behavior.

TRUMP: But I'm not like a fool that says we don't want to do business with them. And...

NORTHAM: So there was a lot of pushback on this. And it continues to today.

SHAPIRO: And as we look today at this attack that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. say were carried out by Iran and the U.S. consideration of how to respond, how do you see this relationship affecting the decision that is now in President Trump's hands?

NORTHAM: Well, this is gonna be a tough spot for President Trump because he is clearly a supporter of Saudi Arabia and the crown prince and that. But at the same time, we're hearing echoes from, you know, the late-1980s again, where he's saying essentially that they have to help pay for this.

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TRUMP: ...But the fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something. They'll be very much involved. And that includes payment. And they understand that fully. But they're going to be...

NORTHAM: So I think it's a pretty tough position for him to be in right now.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jackie Northam. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks very much, Ari.

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